The Secret of Kells is a 2009 Irish-French-Belgian animated film starring Brendan Gleeson, Evan McGuire and Christen Mooney, directed by first-time Irish director Tomm Moore, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. The film is a fictionalised telling of the creation of Irish national treasure the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels of the New Testament created in the 8th century. This version of events, however, is full of fantastical elements such as fairies, ancient pre-Christian pagan gods, and Vikings which, whilst admittedly real, are pretty exciting nonetheless.
Originally conceived in 1999 – ten years before its release – the film was heavily inspired by Disney’s Mulan, Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler, and various films by Hayao Miyazaki, all of which took inspiration from traditional artistic styles and folklore from other nations; Moore, being Irish, turned to traditional Celtic works for his film. Utilising traditional 2D animation techniques, huge amounts of care and attention were lavished on every frame, and it shows – the film is stunning to look at.
Traditional Irish symbols and patterns are hidden everywhere throughout the world, especially in natural environments like grass, trees, roots and a clearing seen from above. The edge of the woods, for example, just outside the walled settlement of Kells, features round trees and fan-shaped trees intertwined, a pattern inspired by a particular page of the Book of Kells itself. This is by no means the only example of this either – throughout the film, frames regularly appear as if they could be pages extracted from the book itself, as if Moore is breathing life into the ancient artifact.
The character design is also wonderful; a lovely blend of the illuminated manuscript style of drawing and clean modern linework, creating a continual reminder of the link between the ancient source material and the modern medium of storytelling. The small cast are all wonderfully stylised too – Brendan Gleeson’s character, Abbot Cellach, is an impossibly tall, slender giant of a man, whilst one of the several unusually-shaped clergymen living in Kells is essentially a walking rectangle. With a beard. The Viking invaders, however, are genuinely terrifying; their scribbled black masses contrasting starkly with the intricately detailed natives, huge horns casting spiky shadows every which way.
It isn’t only the visual aspects of the film that are lovingly and expertly crafted; the narrative is a fascinating mix of history and fantasy. Brendan, our protagonist, is the young nephew of Abbot Cellach, the founder of the walled settlement of Kells. Brendan is fascinated by the work being done by the illuminators of the settlement, and is enthralled by their stories of almost legendary Master Illuminator, Brother Aidan of Iona. His uncle, however, wishes to train Brendan in running the settlement once he passes away, but of even more importance to him is the completion of his wall that will protect the town from raiding Viking hordes.
So when Aidan of Iona and his pure white cat Pangur Bán suddenly arrive in Kells out of the blue, having fled the Viking attack on his home island, the reactions from Brendan and the Abbot could not be more opposing. Brendan wants to learn from Aidan as much as possible, and assist him in any way, which leads to him disobeying his uncle and venturing into the forest in search of oak berries to make emerald ink. It is shortly after entering the forest that he is set upon by a pack of wolves, only to be rescued by a single mysterious white wolf that scares them away before disappearing. Whilst recovering from this terror, he encounters Aisling, the shapeshifting forest sprite. Her name a reference to a form of traditional Celtic poetry, Aisling is a mischievous, childlike being, with long flowing white hair – though there are hints that she is not all she seems. She has incredible athletic skill, far beyond that which her small frame would suggest, and at times runs on all fours like a cat. Or a wolf…
It is from Aisling’s introduction onwards that the story begins to forge more of a connection with more ancient forms of Irish religion and spirituality, in addition to the Christian aspect of the story; the visually sublime scene where Aisling helps Aidan find his berries suggests that the forest itself is a living entity, one that responds and reacts to those within its boundaries. In addition, the pagan deity Crom Cruach shows himself to be a major adversary, with the supremely trippy metaphysical face-off between himself and Brendan recalling Beowulf’s underwater battle with Grendel’s mother. It isn’t often that you come across a children’s film that contains such a heady mix of unusual subject matter, especially not one that looks as sumptuous as Kells does, and with Moore’s sophomore production Song of the Sea due for general release in the near future, there’s hardly a better time to give it a try. As Mrs. Doyle, another Irish national treasure would say, “go on, go on, go on”.